Restoration, and a leap of faith, at Stonington's Hoffman Preserve
Hikers returning next week to Stonington's Hoffman Preserve — closed for nearly two months while logging crews felled swaths of trees as part of a large-scale forest management operation — likely will be initially aghast at the extent of the cutting.
"It is quite a shock," Molly Burton, a member of the Avalonia Land Conservancy, which owns the 198-acre property, said the other day. She paused to allow the whine of a nearby chain saw to subside.
"But," she continued, "it will be fine" — eventually.
Burton was part of a small crew Tuesday that began re-establishing trails that had been torn up by skidders and obscured by stumps and broken branches.
Chris Casadei, a forester with Hull Forest Products of Pomfret, who oversaw the removal of 214,000 board feet of timber, 250 cords of firewood and 5,000 tons of woodchips, walked ahead with a chain saw. Every few yards he trimmed branches, cut through logs and took down whole trees blocking one of the preserve's many winding paths.
"You can't do this job without making lot of noise, and a lot of people get upset, thinking we're ruining the forest," he said.
On the contrary, removing dead, diseased and "crowded" trees that have grown too close together will gradually improve the forest and allow more animals and plants to flourish, Casadei said.
While he sawed, Jim Friedlander, an Avalonia member who, like Burton and Casadei, lives near the preserve, pounded in stakes and spray-painted blazes, while Rick Newton raked brush. I tagged along, dragging away tree limbs.
Friedlander frequently consulted a map on his phone to track the trail but for the most part the group relied on Casadei's memory. He spent weeks tramping the hilly terrain before any trees were cut, evaluating which stands should be thinned.
Realistically, it will take years to restore sections of the preserve, bounded by Route 210, Wolf Neck Road and Lantern Hill Road. Avalonia plans to have volunteers begin more intensive trail restoration soon.
Since its founding more than 50 years ago, the conservancy has preserved about 100 properties amounting to more than 4,000 acres throughout the region. The nonprofit organization's mission is not only to preserve land as open space, but also to make much of it accessible to the public.
The Hoffman Preserve's dense evergreen groves, extensive stone walls and network of blazed trails have long attracted hikers and dog-walkers, as well as cross-country skiers when conditions permit.
Friedlander was among the first to advocate for the Hoffman Preserve's forest management initiative.
"I would go walking there with our dog and we'd never see any animals — not even a squirrel," he recalled.
Because the trees were so tightly packed there was no light or space for understory, which supports wildlife, Friedlander explained.
This can be traced to the forest's origins.
More than a half-century ago gold miner Robert D. Hoffman planted some 100,000 pine, spruce and hemlock seedlings to recreate the Canadian woodland he came to cherish while prospecting on snowshoes and canoe through remote regions of Ontario and Quebec in the 1920s.
In subsequent decades these trees grew into a magnificent forest, which Hoffman's estate bequeathed to the land conservancy after his death in 1975. But in recent years many trees fell victim to drought, disease and predation by gypsy moths.
After considerable discussion and deliberation, the Avalonia board approved a forest management program and signed a contract with Hull last November, which I wrote about then.
The contract calls on the company to pay the conservancy $17,850, which will be used to help maintain the Hoffman property and other Avalonia preserves.
In exchange, Hull can sell the wood.
Casadei said the lumber harvested from the Hoffman Preserve could be used to build more than 100 houses, while the cordwood could heat 50 homes for a year. Even the woodchips will be burned for energy at an Eversource biomass plant in Plainfield.
He noted that the company, whose founder, William Hull, received this year's New England Leopold Conservation Award in recognition of his dedication to environmental protection, has developed management programs for a number of land conservancy organizations similar to Avalonia.
Casadei said trees are a renewable, sustainable resource, but acknowledged that some critics will always oppose logging operations, no matter how responsibly and carefully they are managed.
His response: Complain about cutting down trees only when you stop using wood products that people rely on every day.
I look forward to returning regularly for hikes and runs in the Hoffman Preserve. It will take time and energy to restore all the trails, and I'm sure Avalonia would welcome more volunteers.
Additional information about the organization is available on its website at avalonialandconservancy.org